The woman who turned people into soap. Born in Montella di Avellino in 1893 and marked by an unhappy childhood, in 1914 Leonarda Cianciulli married Raffaele Pansardi, a clerk in the registry office, and went to live in Lariano in Alta Irpinia.
In 1930 an earthquake destroyed their home, and the couple moved to Correggio, in the province of Reggio Emilia. Leonarda had seventeen pregnancies: three were miscarriages, while ten of the children died at a tender age. The four surviving children were to be protected at any price, for Leonarda had not forgotten the words of a gypsy fortune-teller who many years earlier had predicted a terrible fate for her: “You will marry and have children, but all your children will die.” Later she had had her palm read by another gypsy, who told her: “In your right hand I see prison, in your left a criminal asylum.”
In 1939, when she heard that her eldest and favourite son Giuseppe was to join the army, as Italy’s entry into the war became increasingly imminent, Leonarda decided what she had to do: she had to make human sacrifices to save her son’s life. She had three friends, lonely middle-aged women who would give anything to escape from the routine and solitude of Correggio. All three asked Leonarda for help, and she decided that the time had come to act.
The first to fall into her trap was Faustina Setti, the oldest, drawn by Leonarda’s promise that she had found her a husband in Pola. Leonarda convinced the woman not to tell anyone about the news. On the day of her departure, Faustina went to say goodbye to her friend, who convinced her to write some letters and postcards to her friends and relatives, which she was to send as soon as she reached Pola, telling them that everything was fine. But Faustina Setti never reached Pola: she was killed with an axe by Leonarda Cianciulli, who dragged the body into a closet and cut it into nine parts, gathering the blood in a basin.
Then, as she wrote in her statement, “I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the whole mixture until the pieces dissolved in a thick, dark mush that I poured into several buckets and emptied in a nearby septic tank. As for the blood in the basin, I waited until it had coagulated, dried it in the oven, ground it and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk and eggs, as well as a bit of margarine, kneading all the ingredients together. I made lots of crunchy tea cakes and served them to the ladies who came to visit, though Giuseppe and I also ate them.”
The second victim was Francesca Soavi. Leonarda had promised her a job at the girls’ school in Piacenza. On the morning of 5 September 1940, she went to say goodbye to her friend before setting off.
The script was the same: Leonarda convinced the woman to write two postcards, telling her she should send them from Correggio to inform her acquaintances that she was leaving, but without saying where she was going. Leonarda then attacked the woman and made the second “sacrifice”. The third and final victim was Virginia Cacioppo, a former opera singer, then 53, reduced to living with her memories of the past, in poverty. Leonarda offered her a job in Florence as the secretary to a mysterious theatre impresario, begging her not to tell a soul. Virginia was enthusiastic about the proposal, and kept the secret. On 30 September 1940 she went to Leonarda’s house, where: “She ended up in the pot, like the other two (…); her flesh was fat and white, when it had melted I added a bottle of cologne, and after a long time on the boil I was able to make some most acceptable creamy soap. I gave bars to neighbours and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”
Virginia’s sister-in-law, whose suspicions were aroused by her sudden disappearance, and who had last seen her going into Leonarda Cianciulli’s house reported the facts to the Police Superintendent in Reggio Emilia who, by following the many clues left by the murderess, unmasked “the soap-maker”. Under questioning Leonarda Cianciulli immediately confessed to the three murders.
The court found her guilty of the atrocious crimes, and sentenced her to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum. She died in the women’s criminal asylum in Pozzuoli on 15 October 1970, struck down by cerebral apoplexy.